Tom Loftus, the former Assembly speaker, gubernatorial candidate and U.S. ambassador to Norway, couldn’t help himself when he learned that new research shows there were far more deaths in America’s Civil War than what has been the accepted figure for the past century or so.
“John Hunter would have been all over this story,” the Sun Prairie native accurately stated in an email to me.
Yes, he sure would have.
The Civil War was one of the passions of John Patrick Hunter, whose byline graced the pages of The Capital Times for more than for 44 years as a reporter and then the editor in charge of our political coverage during some exciting times in Wisconsin. Civil War history was among his many interests. He was a longtime member of the local chapter of the Civil War Roundtable and every summer he’d take off several weeks to lead tours of some of the nation’s most hallowed battlegrounds.
That the Civil War death toll was revised upward to 750,000 from what had historically been 618,222 — 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South — would have interested him immensely to the point of researching how many more Wisconsin lads might be in that new total. J. David Hacker, the Binghamton University demographic historian who documented the new figures, said the Wisconsin sample was, unfortunately, too small to accurately make any adjustments to the 12,216 deaths that have been attributed to the state since the war ended in 1865.
John’s been gone now for nine years, but whenever the Fourth of July comes around I always think of him. That’s because on July 4, 1951, he wrote one of this city’s most talked-about stories, a story that not only became a part of his legend, but drew comments from the president of the United States.
It was the young John Hunter’s first year with the paper and hence he was assigned to work the Fourth to do a “color” story on all the festivities going on around town. He probably thought this was a bit demeaning since he had been a combat correspondent during World War II and had just finished getting his degree at the University of Wisconsin on the GI bill. On his way out of the office he noticed a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging on the newsroom wall.
That gave him an idea. Remember, 1951 was the beginning of the communist witch hunts engineered by Wisconsin’s own junior senator, Joseph McCarthy. Friends were spying on friends. McCarthy was accusing the State Department of being infused with communist sympathizers. People throughout America were afraid to express their opinions for fear someone would accuse them of being un-American.
If he put together a “petition” that included key segments of the declaration and a few amendments from the Constitution, Hunter wondered whether folks on the day honoring the birth of the United States would sign it. He did just that, went to Vilas Park, and asked people there to sign his petition. Of 112 people he asked, 111 refused. Many told him that they were afraid to sign a petition these days. Others were sure it was something subversive.
The story, which ran the next afternoon, was picked up by newspapers and radio stations across the U.S. It became one of the first concrete examples of just how much hysteria and paranoia McCarthy had created. President Harry Truman included the story in a speech before Congress. In short, it opened a lot of eyes to how despotic politicians can cause havoc with American democracy.
Not everyone liked the story. The State Journal, for instance, ran a picture of Hunter, who always sported a bushy mustache, and asked, “Would you sign anything for this man?”
But the story remains an icon of American journalism. It served to underscore the reality of an onerous political climate. Can we say for sure folks would sign John’s petition today?
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org